There’s always excitement with the start of a new year. After the indulgence of the holidays, we’re motivated to get back on track and set goals to further improve ourselves and our quality of life for the new year. This year, there’s even more excitement as we enter a new decade – 2020!
I’m convinced that as we get older, the list of things we would like to prioritize becomes longer – I need to eat better, get stronger, stretch more, sleep more, meditate, be more kind, etc. With so much to improve in our lives, how do we focus, stick with and achieve our New Year’s Resolutions?The answer is – slowly. I know it’s not the answer we’re all hoping for, but to make lasting changes, we need to create new habits. And new habits can take a while to form. One study found a huge variation in the amount of time it took to create a habit, ranging from as little as 18 days to 254 days, with the average being 66 days (Lally, et. al.). However, the time it takes to form a habit will vary from person to person and depend on what habit you’re trying to form.
Here are some tips to make sure you stick with, and conquer, your goals for 2020:
1. Break big goals into smaller goals
It’s exciting to set big goals for ourselves, but when we get down to work, oftentimes it can be daunting and discouraging. Breaking it down into smaller, easily achievable goals will make the overall process much easier. As you succeed at each smaller goal, you’ll gain confidence and motivation to keep going, as you work your way closer to your big goal.
2. Make your goals specific and measurable
When you can measure the outcome, it’s clear when you’ve succeeded at the task. For example, if your goal is simply to lose weight, how will you know when you’ve succeeded? Is 1 pound a success? 5 pounds? 20? If you specify how much weight you want to lose, your goal now becomes specific and measurable. For example, you specify that you want to lose 10 pounds. Great! All you need is a scale to track your progress and you’ll know exactly when you’ve achieved your goal.
Or your goal can be to fit more comfortably in a certain pair of pants. That is also specific and measurable, since you can monitor how loose the waistband gets over time or which belt loop you’re using. When you feel comfortable in those pants, you’ve achieved your goal.
3. Start slowly and have a plan
Many resolutions revolve around health and wellness, like increasing physical activity or improving your diet. These are great goals, but when you tackle them hard and fast, they can sometimes have discouraging consequences. For example, I’ve been trying to get back into running. I haven’t run in years, so I’m pretty much starting from 0. I’ve tried a few times in the past, but I made the mistake of starting by trying to run 3 miles (because I remember when I could!). Well, it was painful. My legs hurt, my hips stiffened up, my breathing was extremely difficult, it wasn’t fun and I was really sore in the days after. Not surprisingly, I didn’t stick with it beyond a couple attempts. This year, instead of just going out for a run, I’ll slowly start to work it into my evening walks with my dog.
I’ve started by jogging for 3 short stretches during our 3-mile walk. So far, this has helped me avoid the intense soreness afterwards and the uncomfortable breathing issues. Some days I feel better than others, so I take advantage of that feeling and run a little more or a little faster. As long as I include 3 jogging spurts, I’ve completed my task (Tip #2). And as it gets easier, I’ll increase the amount we jog vs walk, until we’re running the full 3 miles and beyond. Basically, don’t be afraid to start slowly. Achieving goals is a process.
4. Set a cue
It can help to set a cue that triggers a behavior. The cue should follow this format: In situation X, I will perform behavior Y. My cue is: When I go for my evening walk with my dog, I will perform at least 3 jogging spurts. The cue can be anything, but it must be distinct enough that it becomes associated with the desired behavior, therefore automatically triggering that behavior.
5. Tell others about your goals
When you tell others about your goals, you add a level of social motivation. You know others will ask you about your progress, which will serve as additional motivation to stick to your plan. If you keep your goals to yourself, it’s easier to get derailed and abandon them when there’s no one else keeping tabs on your progress. Better yet, you can also bring others in on your goals. If you want to start going to the gym, get a friend, who has the same resolution, to join you. You’ll both be accountable to each other, which can increase the likelihood that you’ll stick to it.
6. Forgive yourself for slipping up
Achieving goals is a process and it’s never perfect. Remember that you will slip up from time to time. It’s important to forgive yourself and get back on track…now. If your goal is to cut out sugar, but you went to a birthday party and couldn’t resist eating a piece of cake, that’s ok. Just don’t throw your hands in the air, proclaim you’ve failed, and then take home leftover cake and the candy-filled goodie bag! Enjoy the piece of cake you had, and then reset and get back on track. And the next time you’re confronted with sugar, be prepared by having an item to substitute in its place (e.g. fruit or a homemade baked good). Learn from past slip ups to better prepare for future challenges.
7. Reward your achievements
This can be implemented in different ways. I prefer setting a big reward for achieving a big goal (e.g. going to a nice restaurant or taking a trip). Others might set smaller rewards for the smaller goals and tasks that lead toward their big goal. For example, for each small task they complete, they will go see a movie in the theater, eat a scoop of ice cream, or even get paid x amount of $ by someone keeping tabs on their progress. You can also implement both small and big rewards. Rewards serve to keep you motivated by helping you keep your eye on “the prize.”
If you’re already struggling to stick to your resolutions, you’re not alone. Try implementing some of these strategies and see if they help renew your focus. And perhaps one of the most important things to remember is that improvement is a lifelong process built on the choices we make every day. If you’re not where you want to be, keep doing your best to make the choices that will move you in the right direction. And don’t worry if your progress is messy, human behavior and progress is rarely linear. Strive for, and celebrate, continuous improvement. We’re rooting for you!
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., Wardle, J., (2016). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world, European Journal of Social Psychology , https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674 , 40, 6, pp 998-1009.